Whiskey Review: Coppersea Green Malt Whiskies (Barley, Rye)

Coppersea Green Malt Whiskies

image via Margarett Waterbury

Coppersea Distilling is a field-to-glass distillery located in New York’s Hudson valley that’s part of a small but growing group of vertically integrated farmhouse distilleries. At Coppersea, every step of production takes place onsite, from growing and malting grain to mashing, distilling, aging, and bottling. Christopher Briar Williams, Coppersea’s Distillery Manager, says the old-fashioned process results in “19th century American whiskies.”

New York is a member of the growing roster of states that has adopted new regulations to define “craft” spirits as those made with a certain percentage of in-state ingredients. In New York, 75% of all ingredients must be produced in-state for a distillery to offer samples, sell bottles directly from their tasting room, and sell at farmer’s markets and other off-premises events. The regulations are intended to support small, home-grown operators like Coppersea, and to ensure that consumers aren’t misled by rebottled MGP distillate unscrupulously marketed as “craft.”

Products like Coppersea’s are in line with both the letter and the spirit of these regulations. Right now, Coppersea grows a portion of its own grain, with the remainder sourced from nearby farms. All their malt is floor-malted onsite before being mashed in open wooden fermenters and distilled on direct-fire alembic stills. Some of the barrels used for aging are made of New York oak, and they’ve planted an orchard of pear and apple varieties bred for brandy. They even raise heritage American Mulefoot pigs partially fattened on stillage and spent grain.

You might expect that Coppersea’s iconoclastic approach to distilling would yield some unusual products, and you’re right. I recently tasted two extremely unique releases from Coppersea made with green malt. In traditional malting, the grain is kilned when it reaches just the right stage of germination to halt growth and impart toasty, cracker-like notes. Green malt skips that step, instead using the still-germinating barley to make a mash full of lively organic flavors. You can view the process in action on their Instagram. Both releases come in elegant bottles with a copper wax seals and attractive, artwork-heavy labels.

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Tasting Notes – Coppersea Green Malt Rye

Vital Stats: 90 proof, 100% malted Hudson valley rye, aged 0.7 years, 375ml bottle retails for around $90.

Appearance: New copper penny

Nose: Tomato leaf, paraffin, crayon wax, rye bread packed in sawdust, red hots, mildew, damp hay, wet sweater forgotten in the trunk of your car. Cinnamon and candied pineapple granola with nutmeg. With water, Elmer’s glue. Overall, strange, but so intriguing.

Palate: An immediate blast of cinnamon, so strong that I would almost believe that this was flavored a la Fireball. You know when realtors boil cinnamon and cloves on the stove before an open house to make everything smell cozy? This is what I imagine that water tastes like after a long day on the back burner. It resolves in an chalky, almost powdery sensation.

With water, the grain becomes more evident, like eating a handful of sunflower seeds and rye hulls. The finish continues with numbing clove and an odd hint of grape concentrate. The alcohol character is muted for a 90-proof spirit – the kick here comes from the spice, and not the ABV.

In some sense, this is captivating. Lots of fascinating tastes and aromas, but there’s also something jarring about it. The flavors don’t quite strike a balance – perhaps it needed more than 0.7 years in a barrel? In any case, this one is odd but not unlovely.

Tasting Notes – Coppersea Green Malt Barley

Vital Stats: 96 proof, aged one year in used barrels, 100% floor-malted barley, 375ml bottle retails for around $90.

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Appearance: Light, greenish (perhaps just the power of suggestion?) gold

Nose: I grew up in the country, and my brother and I used to play in the infrequently mowed strip between the fields and the forest. Sometimes, when really hunkered down in a damp tractor tire rut watching the potato bugs, all you can smell is damp soil and decaying grass and a hint of growing grass (which are very different smells) along with a note of compost and the slightest waft of smoke from the neighbor’s chimney. This smells like that – fecund, earthy, damp, alive.

Palate: Super funky and vegetal: horse blanket, washed rind cheese, English shelling peas. This tastes something might grow from the bottle if you planted it. In some ways it tastes a bit like new-make bourbon: ashy, green, with notes of charred grain husk, bubblegum, and pool water. It’s uniquely grainy, but living grain, not the toasted stuff. Despite spending a year in a barrel it still has a short, hot finish.

I am glad for the chance to taste this whiskey – it’s a fascinating glimpse into the amazing range of flavors the humble barley grain can create. But I’m not sure it’s a bottle I’ll be finishing right away. As Lew Bryson said in his Whiskey Advocate review of Coppersea Green Malt Rye, “a little goes a long way.” It’s good that these bottles are so beautiful, because I think they might be in the liquor cabinet for a while, brought out on occasion when only the strangest sip will do.